Save Calgary's campaign against city councillors raises questions about 3rd-party electoral laws
What's Save Calgary? It's not easy to find out, and some say that's a problem for democracy
A group called Save Calgary has been soliciting donations and running advertisements on downtown billboards in a bid to unseat five members of Calgary city council — but figuring out who's behind the campaign isn't easy.
Under Alberta's current laws, third-party groups like this one aren't subject to donation limits or required to disclose their donors.
They don't even have to disclose their own identities, if they don't want to, as Save Calgary has been reluctant to do.
It wasn't until after this story was initially published that CBC News was given contact information for a spokesperson and a name.
Hadyn Place said the group is under no obligation to say who's involved in the group and he sees no reason for releasing that information.
"I couldn't give you an exact figure, but there's certainly under a dozen," he said when asked to at least indicate how many people were involved with the group.
Place is involved in Alberta Can't Wait, one of the groups that was pushing for the province's conservative parties to merge. The group now says its mission is to hold both the NDP government and the leadership of the United Conservative Party to account.
He said he is a volunteer with Bianca Smetacek's campaign in the Calgary Board of Education trustee race.
Targeting individual candidates
Save Calgary's website targets Mayor Naheed Nenshi and councillors Evan Woolley, Gian-Carlo Carra, Druh Farrell and Diane Colley-Urquhart, branding them with graphics as "failing candidates" and republishing various news stories related to city hall issues.
Place says they're targeting those candidates for a reason.
"We feel that there are good candidates running against those current city councillors and we don't like their voting records, and their priorities, we feel, are out of step with everyday Calgarians' priorities," he said.
Save Calgary also solicits funds under a "Donate" section on its website, with suggested contributions of between $25 and $2,500.
Payments can be made by credit card, and donors are asked for their personal information, but those who prefer to remain anonymous can tick a box that says, "Don't publish my donation on the website."
Individual candidates running for city council, by contrast, must register their intended candidacy in order to legally start fundraising.
They can then accept a maximum of $5,000 per donor and must publish an accounting of their campaign expenditures and a list of their donors after the election.
But "there's nothing like that at all" when it comes to political campaigns by third-party organizations, said Mount Royal University political scientist Lori Williams.
"They don't have to disclose how much money they get, who they get it from, how they spend it," she said.
"The reason that's a concern in a democracy is that it means that people with a lot of money could buy a lot of airtime or a media campaign that could be beyond the reach of other candidates."
Place said his organization has spent $8,000 to date, but CBC News is unable to independently verify that figure.
Laws different at provincial, federal levels
There are laws governing how third-party groups can campaign on behalf of, or against, candidates at the provincial and federal levels.
The Alberta Urban Municipalities Association — which represents cities, towns, villages and other municipalities that together serve more than than 85 per cent of Alberta's population — called on the provincial government last year to implement similar rules in time for the provincewide municipal elections set for October 2017.
But there are no plans to change the rules at the municipal level until next year, at the earliest.
"We anticipate conducting a review in early 2018 with the possibility of legislative amendments later that year," said Tim Seefeldt, a spokesman for Alberta Municipal Affairs.
The next municipal elections are in 2021.
Place said his organization should not be held to the same standards of disclosure as elected officials and is cautious about rules for third-party advertisers.
"I think that the rules that have come in provincially are over the top. I mean, that's not for me to say. I think those concerns can be addressed and when it comes to that we'd love to be a part of that discussion, maybe, but we're just operating under the rules as they exist," he said.
Membership of Save Calgary
No names or identifying information appear overtly on the Save Calgary website, and two people whose names came up in connection with the group denied involvement.
Earlier on Monday CBC News reached one person by phone whose name appears on a Google search result of the group's website (but not on the current website, itself). However, he said he wasn't involved. He then promptly locked down his Twitter account from public view.
Another person whose name was signed at the end of an email sent to CBC News from a savecalgary.com email address later denied the message was sent by him.
"My involvement with Save Calgary is quite limited at this point. My name was used accidentally by comms team," he said in a subsequent message from a personal email address.
Then, in a later email, he said: "I'm not involved, please don't use my name anywhere. I don't agree with the direction they've taken."
CBC News has decided not to publish the name of that person, who is registered as an intended candidate for city council, because it's unclear if he's actually involved with Save Calgary.
The Save Calgary Facebook page used a picture of Paige MacPherson of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation as its cover photo but she said that's not by her choice.
"I have no involvement with this group/social media page and the CTF has no involvement," MacPherson said in an email.
(After this story was published, the group removed MacPherson's photo from the top of its Facebook page.)
The savecalgary.com domain is registered through "Domains by Proxy," an online service that helps owners of websites mask their identities.
A similarly named domain, savecalgary.ca, redirects to a "Re-elect Naheed Nenshi 2017" YouTube video.
Place said Save Calgary will consider releasing a list of donors after the election "if we decide that that's appropriate."
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With files from Kate Adach